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How Long Does Ammo Last? (And How Tell if It’s Bad)

Ammunition doesn’t have an infinite shelf life. In fact, some types of ammo last only one year from the date of manufacture before they should be discarded as unusable, according to guidelines issued by NATO armies and the U.S.

Most manufacturers guarantee their ammo to last as long as a decade. In general, most ammunition will last for at least ten years if it’s stored in ideal situations. Ultimately, the shelf life is strongly influenced by storage conditions. 

Ammunition is available in a wide variety of calibers, bullet types, and manufacturers. As such, not all ammunition will last the same length of time. If you’re looking to buy your first gun and some ammo for it specifically, or you’re worried about ammo you have in storage, read on to find out how long different types of ammo usually lasts.

Does Ammo Go Bad With Age?

Manufacturers recommend getting rid of old ammunition after ten years. Any older, and it can negatively affect your firearm or even cause injury or death if fired from a gun. However, this is only an estimate based on optimal conditions being met—such as always being stored at room temperature with virtually no humidity change. 

Ammo does go bad with age. More specifically, ammo will lose its effectiveness over time. There could be any number of reasons for ammo going bad, such as rusting bullets, powder that won’t burn, corrosion on casings due to humidity, etc. It’s recommended to replace your ammo every decade or so. 

The majority of manufacturers advise against using ammunition over ten years old. Again, this isn’t because it’ll necessarily become unusable within that set period. But it’s still preferable to be cautious rather than sorry. If you have older rounds sitting in storage, be sure to use them as soon as possible, perhaps by getting some shooting practice at the range.

Depending on the type of ammunition you use (e.g., for hunting, self-defense, target practice), you must pay attention to its age and replace it when needed.

How Long Is It Safe To Store Ammo?

Open green ammo box full of bullets

As with most things, age alone doesn’t determine whether ammo has gone bad. There are other factors that must also be considered. Generally speaking, though, some types of ammunition do eventually go bad if left unused for too long, but it’s preferable to be cautious rather than risk it.

It’s safe to store ammo for ten years or less, as a general rule of thumb. Ammunition that’s stored for more extended periods of time runs the risk of going bad, particularly if it’s exposed to humidity, high temperatures, or other conditions that could damage its quality.

How To Tell if Ammo Is Bad

If your ammunition seems rusted, corroded, or otherwise damaged in any way – it has likely gone bad. If there are signs of mold on the casing, this also means the cartridge should be discarded without delay. 

Powder cartridges should never feel damp or wet. Symptoms may vary depending on what type of ammunition was affected by storage problems—bullets, rifle rounds, and shotgun shells all have their own unique signs that they’re no longer fit for use.

Generally, you can tell ammo has gone bad if it:

  • Has rust, corrosion, discoloration, or any other damage on the outer casing. 
  • Feels misshapen when handled. This can be a sign that moisture got into your ammunition and has begun to freeze in cold temperatures. 
  • Is making strange noises when shot. This could mean there’s something blocking the path of the bullet inside the cartridge. In this case, the primer is most likely faulty and should be discarded.

There are a few simple forms of testing you can perform yourself in order to determine if any given piece of ammunition is fit for use. Here are the ways to test bad ammo:

  • Check that the length of the cartridge is how it was when you first stored it. If not, then there’s a chance that the bullet has shifted in its casing and might have come into contact with other cartridges—potentially causing ignition problems or an explosion.
  • Take a closer look at the primer of the cartridge to make sure it hasn’t been compromised in any way. 

Related Cleaning Bullets | How To Do It Correctly

How To Dispose of Old Ammo

You can dispose of cartridges either at a recycling center or on public property, as long as you’re certain it’s legal to do so where you live. Disposing of ammo in the trash is dangerous because it could potentially be found by children or others who don’t know it’s still a potential explosive.

Disposing of cartridges in this manner has the potential to create environmental hazards, particularly when it comes to lead (which will contaminate soil and water supplies). Recycling centers for ammo are fast and easy to find, but you can also search for public hazardous waste disposal sites. It’s important to verify the area accepts small arms cartridges before disposing of them in this way.

It’s critical to check for bad ammo regularly. By performing this simple test of your stored ammunition, you’ll be able to ensure your guns are ready to fire when the need arises. If you’ve been storing away ammunition for a long period of time and determine it has gone bad, make sure there’s no more ammunition like it—one explosion could cause a chain reaction and lead to serious injury or property damage.

Is 30-Year-Old Ammo Still Good?

Many people are wondering if their outdated ammunition is still good. The simple answer is that it depends on how you store it. Ammunition can deteriorate with time, but this process is slow and often imperceptible to the average user. 

30-year-old ammo is more than likely not good. Most manufacturers recommend only keeping ammo for ten years. To get the most life out of your ammo, be sure to store it correctly. Factors that affect how long ammo lasts include damage from sunlight, extreme heat or cold, and the type of casing.

Keep these tips in mind when storing your ammunition:

  • Store the rounds flat with the bullet tip up if possible—bullets tend to deform more easily if they’re left standing on end
  • Keep your ammo in a cool, dry place
  • Avoid storing your ammunition next to solvents or other chemicals
  • Never store ammo in an airtight container 

How Long Does Corrosive Ammo Last?

Essentially, any ammunition with a nitroglycerin-based primer is considered corrosive. While these rounds were originally created for use in surplus rifles and cheap handguns, it’s not uncommon to find them loaded into modern weapons as well. Some of these rounds can be very dangerous and make cleaning your firearm a complex procedure, while others are more akin to standard ammunition—just a bit messier.

Corrosive ammo lasts until it comes into contact with moisture, which includes–but isn’t limited to–water, saltwater, sweat, and humidity. After coming into contact with such elements, ammo will begin to rust. Corrosive ammo can potentially last from 10 to 25 years. 

How Long Do 9mm Bullets Last?

Handgun on Ziplock Bag Filled with Ammo

9mm ammunition has been around for nearly a century. When it was first developed, no one could have foreseen that it would be as popular as it is and used in such a wide variety of firearms so many decades later. This ammunition continues to see widespread use in military, police, and self-defense situations where their small size and high stopping power make them an ideal choice.

9 mm ammunition can last for 10-25 years and continue to function correctly if it’s stored in a cool, dry place. The only way for them to become ineffective is if they become corroded. 

Corrosion happens when one of two things occurs: either foreign matter gets inside of them or they come into contact with water. When they’re manufactured, most corrosive ammunition will have a lacquer coating applied to prevent corrosion and make it easier to load. 

The exception to that rule is military surplus ammunition that was loaded before these safety measures were put in place. If your 9mm ammo was produced before 1970, it’s probably not coated, which means it can suffer corrosion if stored in a humid environment for long periods of time.

What Is the Shelf Life of 5.56 Ammo?

5.56x45mm NATO rounds, commonly known as 5.56 ammo, have a shelf life of up to 30 years if stored properly. As with any ammunition or explosive, however, improper storage conditions can increase corrosion and degrade performance over time. 

5.56 ammo can last for decades after purchase when:

  • Kept in a cool and dry environment
  • Not exposed to oxygen or moisture (especially salt water)
  • Sealed in an airtight container when not in use
  • Kept away from heat sources like radiators or baseboard heaters

Related How Much Ammo Can You Buy at One Time? (Legal Limits).

How Long Does Hollow Point Ammo Last?

To prevent unspent hollow point rounds from becoming damaged or unsafe to use, store them in a separate container from your non-hollow point ammunition. Keeping them in different containers will also make it easier to organize your inventory of ammunition. 

Hollow-point ammunition can last anywhere from 10 to 25 years, depending on storage conditions. A cool, dry place with limited light exposure and high humidity will prolong its shelf life. 

Be sure to inspect your hollow point ammunition before use. Hollow points can occasionally become crushed and unusable, so be sure to check each round prior to firing it. It’s better to find a dud than risk an injury at home or in public. 

Properly stored hollow point rounds should function as well as they did when they were manufactured. Notably, they should fire and feed smoothly through your firearm without any hiccups. If you notice a problem with a specific round, that particular projectile may need to be replaced before you continue using that box of ammunition.

How Long Does Shotgun Ammo Last?

There are many different types of ammo available for different guns, but most are available in three common calibers: .22, .380, and 12 gauge. Corrosive shotgun shells have been around for a long time and are still found in limited production. Most manufacturers produce non-corrosive shotgun shells. 

Shotgun ammo lasts more than ten years when stored in ideal conditions. When stored in humid or wet environments, it doesn’t last as long. Shells that have been loaded into a gun and not shot will last longer than shells that have been fired. 

Shotgun shells should be stored in a cool, dry place. They should also be placed in a ventilated container and not stacked directly on top of each other. Keeping ammo in a bag or case helps to protect it from moisture. Metal-type ammunition, including shotgun shells, will eventually rust if not taken care of properly.

Are Old Bullets Worth Money?

While old bullets aren’t typically worth a whole lot of money, there are still some exceptions to that rule. 

Old bullets may be worth money if still within shelf life. If not, they still may have value if they’re antique or collectible. Notably, ammunition collectors who specialize in certain areas (such as Vietnam-era military ammunition or antique rifle ammo) may pay a pretty penny for older cartridges. 

The bottom line is if you have old bullets lying around, it might be worth seeing if any gun collectors are interested in buying them from you. You can also check out websites like eBay to see what kinds of prices other ammunition collectors are charging for different kinds of cartridges and boxes of bullets. 

Parting Shot

Most ammo can last for decades or more. Understanding how corrosive and non-corrosive ammo works, as well as understanding how to store it properly and safely can help you to lengthen its lifespan. 

If you’re purchasing your ammunition online, be sure to check with the retailer about how they package their ammunition. Some retailers will ship their rounds in watertight containers with desiccants to ensure no moisture reaches their rounds, but you may need to request this from them.

For more, check out How to Safely Store a Gun for Home Defense | Best Practices.